Today is the birthday of Jacob Grimm, The eldest of the folk tale collecting Grimm brothers. He and his brother Wilhelm were born in Hanau in what is now Germany. Jacob in 1785, Wilhelm, a year later. I don’t particularly favour Jacob above Wilhelm, It’s just that I wanted to write about them and needed to pick a day. Germany was, when they began to collect their stories, a fairly loose collection of states, part of which had been invaded by Napoleon. German people had a strong need to hang onto their national identity. Many felt that this identity was to be found in the popular culture and amongst the ‘volk’, the ordinary working people. This was one of the things that led them to make a collection of German folk tales. Another was that peoples’ work patterns were changing in a way that meant they had less time for storytelling. Jacob and Wilhelm wanted to capture the tales and write them down before they were lost.
Their first collection ‘Kinder – und Hausmärchen’ (Children’s and Household Tales) was published in two volumes in 1812 and 1815. They claimed, or at least heavily suggested, that the stories were all German in origin and collected from the humblest of people. Neither of these were really true. For example, they presented ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ as uniquely German. It isn’t, there are loads of versions that come from all over Europe. It dates back to at least the 10th century. There are even echoes of it in the Elder Edda in a story about Thor dressing up as a bride to retrieve his stolen hammer. There are similar stories from Russia, from North Africa, even from China. The protagonist was not always a wolf, sometimes it was an ogre, sometimes a werewolf. Werewolves were a very real thing to medieval Europeans. Real people were tried, found guilty and executed horribly for being werewolves. Sometimes Red Riding Hood takes off her clothes and burns them on the fire before getting into bed with the wolf. Often the wolf tricks her into eating some of her grandmother’s flesh. Variously, she is eaten and that is the end of the story, or she is saved by a man, a woman, or just saves herself. No one can say where the story came from of what it was originally about. Perhaps it is a story about how night swallows day. Perhaps it is a rite of passage story, perhaps it is a warning against sexual predators. Perhaps it is all of these things.
Some of the tales were collected from written sources, others from their friends and family. A major contributor, Dorothea Viehmann, was the wife of a middle class tailor. Also she was a Huguenot, so basically French. Definitely not a German peasant. Nor were the stories written down exactly as told, but were embellished with each succeeding edition of the tales. Also as they became more famous, they were inundated by people sending them their own versions of the tales. So they had more material to work with. We can’t really accuse them of changing the original stories, because folk tales are stories that have been changing all the time for ever. As we have seen, there are no definitive versions.
The first edition didn’t really go down that well. It was never really meant for public consumption and was certainly not aimed at children. Yet that was the general complaint: These stories were terrible for children. This was not really the fault of the Grimms. They had collected stories from adults, some of which were to be told to other adults. They were not cosy bedtime stories for children. In their original version of Rapunzel, the witch who locked her in a high tower finds out that she has been visited by the prince, not because Rapunzel complains that the witch is so much heavier than the prince as she climbed up her long plait of hair, but because she is clearly pregnant. As the Grimm brothers began to perceive a new market for their work amongst the rising middle classes, they began to tone down their stories. They began to add more Christian elements to them and to add morals. They took out obviously French stories like ‘Puss in Boots’ and ‘Bluebeard’ and also references to fairies, which were similarly, a bit too much of a French thing. They removed the sexual references, but not really that much of the violence. Certainly Hansel and Gretel are taken to the forest on the orders of their Stepmother, rather than their actual mother, as in the first edition. But they are still abandoned in the forest to starve. In their other stories, the murders, the dismemberments, the cannibalism are all still there.
The Grimms being, as they were, all about German Nationalism and identity, suffered rather after the Second World War. Hitler loved them and demanded that every school should teach the stories. The tales are full of fearless and heroic German Boys. The Nazis even made a film of Little Red Riding Hood where she is rescued at the end by an SS officer. The Grimms were tainted by Hitler’s enthusiasm for them and, after the war, they were banned in a lot of places. They are not universally liked today, particularly by parents who want to keep their children away from such violent stories, but also because quite a lot of the female characters are rather insipid and helpless. They lie about, sleeping or dead or something while they wait to be rescued. But if you pick your stories you can find some good female role models. Gretel is pretty smart, the way she tricks that witch into getting into the oven and, as when I mentioned Bluebeard in an other post, I point you heavily in the direction of ‘Fitcher’s Bird’.
The final edition of their tales though, from 1857, with which people are generally most familiar, is a much altered version of the original. Recently, Professor Emeritus, Jack Zipes from the University of Minnesota has published the first English translation of the Grimm’s first edition. There, you can read a story of a mother who is so poor and hungry that she plots to kill and eat her own children and how a whole family die horribly as a result of two children playing a game called ‘Butcher and Pig’ So now we have both ends of the Grimm spectrum. Their (slightly) sanitized final version and the glorious originals. Which ever you choose, lots of people will die in truly awful ways, but what are these dark evenings for if not a scary story?